A-List: Five Best Boxing Movies
By J. Don Birnam
November 26, 2015
We know the movies love stories about Christmas, but there aren’t really many movies about Thanksgiving. Perhaps eating large quantities of food is not as interesting narratively as stories about gifting, Christmas light romance, and caroling. Which is why, instead of discussing the best movies about Thanksgiving this weekend, we will instead be looking at the best boxing movies, in honor of this weekend’s new release and sudden Oscar contender, Creed. Still, if you think I missed obvious Thanksgiving movies, there is always Twitter!.
I’m not a big fan of the genre overall, but it seems that there are many legendary movies that have focused on men beating each other up. Perhaps it is the way that sports movie heroism can be reduced to individual achievement in boxing matches that is most appealing. By my count, three movies that center on a sport have won Best Picture - and two of them feature boxing, both of which we will discuss later today. (The third is Chariots of Fire).
The rule is pretty simple: if the movie has a boxer as a main character, then it is eligible. This year, it wasn’t only Creed that added itself to the genre, but Jake Gyllenhaal’s mostly unsuccessful Southpaw also sought to make some noise. One could mention David O. Russell’s Best Picture nominee, The Fighter, as deserving of a spot, but to me it seemed like everyone was trying to out-act each other and out-fake accent each other. The Academy, of course, disagreed and gave the otherwise deserving Christian Bale and Melissa Leo acting Oscars. Denzel Washington’s The Hurricane, which chronicles the story of a New Jersey boxer wrongly convicted of a triple murder, is a solid flick but does not really center around boxing itself.
Finally, one has to give some consideration to Paul Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me. The 1956 drama is based on the life of legendary Boxer Rocky…uh, Barbella. Newman does what he does best - portrays the troubled, misunderstood anti-hero, but the movie is somewhat dialed in with predictable twists and outcome.
5. Ali (2001). Today making a serious push at a Best Actor nod for portraying a real-life doctor who discovered issues relating to head injuries in the NFL, Will Smith first showed his more serious acting talents way back when he portrayed the title character in the acclaimed boxing movie, Ali, for which, in fact, he received his first Academy nomination. Based in part on the must-see Muhammad Ali/George Foreman documentary When We Were Kings, the strongest part of the film is the performances of both Smith and Jon Voight, who convince you of their originality throughout. At the very least, the movie is an interesting exploration of the enigmatic boxer, from his conversion to Islam to his role in the Vietnam War. The film then also effectively places Ali in the broader context of his time, taking us through the assassinations of Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. and their effect on the title character. In the end, a solid, stoic portrayal educates us while it mostly thrills us, and one definitely cannot help but root for the guy in the end.